Monday, 14 January 2013

Rogue by Name, Rogue by Nature?

“In all my past life, I have done nothing either great or good.” These were among the final words spoken by Branwell Brontë as he lay on his death bed, his body ravaged by chronic bronchitis, drink and opium, at the tragically young age of thirty one. His brutal reflection contains an element of truth. Branwell failed as a portrait painter; was dismissed from his work as a railway clerk for missing a discrepancy in finances; fired from his job as a tutor for falling in love with the employer’s wife and was forced to return to the family home in his late twenties a penniless, broken addict. However, as The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery’s ‘Visions of Angria’ exhibition illustrates, Branwell’s juvenilia is proof that he achieved something quite remarkable in his short life.

Born on 26 June 1817, Patrick Branwell Brontë was the fourth child and only son of Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë. Following the death of his two sisters at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, Branwell was tutored at home by his Aunt Branwell and his father, a Cambridge graduate. It was a combination of this education with a heavy bias towards the classics, the Tory politics chronicled in Blackwood’s Magazine and a gift of a box of toy soldiers on 5 June 1826 that inspired Branwell, along with his sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne to create and write about their own imaginary world.

Each sibling selected a toy soldier and named him after someone featured in Blackwood’s Magazine. Branwell’s was initially called Bonaparte or Bony but this character was later reincarnated as Sneaky, then Rogue, then Lord Elrington, then finally his alter ego, Alexander Percy or Northangerland. The Brontë children invented a background story for their soldiers, ‘History of the Young Men’, which Branwell wrote down, and they used the west coast of Africa for the setting of their various fictitious cities and states.Critics believe the ruthless Alexander Percy was based on Milton’s Lucifer, Lord Byron’s Conrad and Walter Scott’s Richard Varney and claim that ‘The Life of Alexander Percy’, Branwell’s ongoing biography of this charismatic character, is Branwell’s best work. Branwell was also proud of his creation as he used the pseudonym ‘Northangerland’ when he was the first Brontë to have a poem published in the Halifax Guardian in 1841.

Yet, while there are some similarities between the personality of his fictional anti-hero and Branwell’s own passionate, increasingly melancholic and atheistic nature, the latter was not as roguish as Percy. Indeed, it could be argued that Branwell’s greatest crime was that he did not fulfil his early potential.

By Sarah Butler (Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery)

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